Chulalongkorn (1853-1910) was king of Thailand from 1868 to 1910. When Thailand was seriously threatened by Western colonialism, his diplomatic policies averted colonial domination and his domestic reforms brought about the modernization of his kingdom.
Born in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand (Siam), on Sept. 20, 1853, Chulalongkorn was the ninth child of King Mongkut but the first son to be born to a royal queen. He was thus regarded from an early age as the logical heir to the throne, especially by the consuls of European powers, and was educated accordingly. It was for him and his younger brothers that Anna Leonowens was engaged as governess at the court (1862-1867). She later recalled the slight and frail youth as studious, gentle, and awed by the responsibilities which lay before him. These came upon him much earlier than he expected when, after a trip with his father to the Malay Peninsula to view a solar eclipse, both he and his father fell ill of malaria and Mongkut died on Oct. 1, 1868.
Supposing the 15-year-old Chulalongkorn also to be dying, the most powerful government official of the day, the "prime minister" Suriyawong (Chuang Bunnag), stage-managed the succession of Chulalongkorn to the throne. He also arranged his own appointment as regent and the appointment of Prince Wichaichan, Chulalongkorn's cousin, as heir apparent, confident that Wichaichan could be manipulated after Chulalongkorn's death. But Chulalongkorn's health improved, and he was tutored in public affairs, traveled to Java and India to observe modern administration, and was crowned king in his own right as Rama V on Nov. 16, 1873.
With the support of his brothers and young friends, the King began, in 1873, to attack the injustices of the old order and the power of his political rivals by attempting to impose centralized budgeting and accounting, streamlining a judicial system beset by delays and corruption, and inaugurating consultative legislative councils dominated by his young friends. These actions, accompanied by a decline in Wichaichan's prospects, brought on the "Front Palace Crisis" of early 1875, when Wichaichan fled to the British consulate and demanded protection; had it been granted, Thailand would have become an Anglo-French protectorate in all but name. Britain and France, by refusing to support their consuls, treated the matter as an internal quarrel, and Chulalongkorn was able to bring about a resolution of the crisis. Peace, however, was bought at a high price, for the King's supporters were disbanded, the councils ceased to meet, and no further reforms were undertaken for a decade.
The decade which followed was in some ways the most critical of the reign. Chulalongkorn felt thwarted by the former regent and older conservatives who dominated public office; and they, for their part, were more than ever distrustful of him and the modern reforms with which he was identified. When the king managed, from 1879, to begin establishing modern schools for the education of civil servants, the sons of the old noble families were conspicuously absent. Several lesser noble families from whom the King expected support disgraced themselves in public scandals. Chulalongkorn found that he could rely only on his younger half brothers—of whom 26 survived into the 1880s—for educated and loyal leadership. He supervised their formal education and worked with them in his personal secretariat to assess their abilities before placing them in offices under his control. Together he and his brothers labored as clerks in the new audit office, discussed means of improving the royal bodyguard corps and ultimately the army, and carefully kept abreast of foreign affairs and all the details of domestic administration. As the ministers of the older generation began to die or retire, the King at last had his opportunity to initiate change.
Chulalongkorn was convinced of both the rightness and the necessity of reform. His father had imbued him with the Buddhist ideals of the "just king" (dhammaraja), and Mrs. Leonowens with parallel Western ideas of social justice and democracy, and to these ideals he was genuinely committed. At the same time, he was constantly reminded by Western representatives that his only hope of avoiding colonial control lay in undertaking far-reaching reforms to facilitate Western commercial penetration. The crisis of 1875 had made the King painfully aware of the limits of his powers and of the strength of his conservative rivals, so that he moved only gradually and slowly to reform as his position improved. The Western consuls, however, were impatient and only dimly aware of this tense political situation, which the Thai tried to conceal from them; and by the time Chulalongkorn moved, it was almost too late.
As in 1873-1874, when the king began to take over the old ministries by appointing his brothers, the more radical among them wished to move faster than he did. A group including three of his brothers and five officials with foreign experience petitioned him on Jan. 8, 1885, for the creation of a constitutional monarchy and elective legislature. In a gentle and thoughtful reply he argued that parliamentary democracy was not yet possible in a country without education and in which the small educated elite was completely absorbed in administration. What was needed immediately, he stated, was a "reform government." He rapidly constructed one in the following 7 years by placing young men gradually in all the old ministries, by transferring departments from one ministry to another to group responsibilities functionally, and by personally supervising the training of the men who were to run the new system.
The six ministries of traditional Thai government had been omnicompetent, each with its own tax collections, law courts, provinces to administer, and rights to unsupervised expenditure; and they tended to be dominated by the minister of the North (mahatthai) and the minister of the South (kalahom), whom the King had been almost powerless to control. The new system, introduced on April 1, 1892, had 12 functionally defined ministries responsible to the King. Nine of the 12 ministers were half brothers of the King, and they met regularly as a cabinet to formulate state policy.
Central to the reform program was the work of the ministry of interior, directed from 1892 by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab. By grouping almost 100 provinces into just 14 "circles," Damrong was able to make effective use of a very small body of educated young men in rapidly strengthening Bangkok's control over hitherto semiautonomous provinces. As a result, state revenues doubled within 7 years, and the new administrative structure brought the rule of law, public works, and elementary public education to the most distant provinces by the turn of the century. Chulalongkorn's son Prince Rabi was appointed as minister of justice in 1896, and all Thai law was recodified along European lines by the end of the reign, and a centralized modern judicial system was introduced. Railway construction, financed until 1904 entirely out of current revenues, rapidly linked the country together as never before. The King took great care in choosing the men for these tasks and followed daily the progress of the work. He encouraged and supported the most able of them and gave them a free hand, while ever goading and criticizing the less decisive and mediocre.
Until the 1880s Chulalongkorn generally could assume that he had the goodwill of the Western powers and counted on British support for Thai independence and upon the skillful diplomacy of Prince Devawongse, whose appointment as foreign minister in 1886 marked the resumption of reform. From the mid-1880s, however, French ambitions in Indochina began to clash with Thai rights of suzerainty over Laos. The Thai were powerless to halt the demands which escalated into the Franco-Thai War of 1893 and ended with French gunboats forcing their way up the Chaophraya River to Bangkok to demand the cession to France of the east bank of the Mekong River and the payment of a large indemnity. Britain, counted on to support the Thai, refused to intervene, and Laos was ceded to France.
Chulalongkorn was disheartened and went into an almost year-long period of illness and depression. Once recovered, he began to take initiatives and responsibility he had earlier been more willing to share with his brothers. The Anglo-French Declaration of 1896 guaranteed the integrity of central Siam but left the northeast threatened by France and the south by Britain. Chulalongkorn's European tour of 1897 was, among other things, an attempt to secure new European interest in Thailand's continued independence, especially on the part of Russia and Germany. Whether the tour achieved this object or not, it did give Chulalongkorn a new self-confidence and a realization that modernization did not necessarily mean Westernization: "We must try to imitate what is good elsewhere, and at the same time not only to keep but to develop what is good and worthy of respect in our own national character and institutions," he declared upon his return.
During the remainder of Chulalongkorn's reign rapid progress was made toward the resolution of Thailand's most serious problems in the field of foreign affairs. Small areas of Laos on the western bank of the Mekong and the western provinces of Cambodia were ceded to France in 1904 and 1907, and in return the Thai regained legal jurisdiction over French Asian subjects in Thailand. The cession to Britain of the four Malayan states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis in 1909 brought Thailand similar legal concessions (although the abolition of extraterritoriality was still several decades away) and capital for the extension of the railways toward Singapore. Most of all, by the end of his reign the King could feel that his country's independence at last was secure.
Chulalongkorn's personal life was filled with tragedies no less severe than the public crises he successfully surmounted. His beloved Queen Sunantha died in a boating accident in 1880; Crown Prince Vajirunhis died in 1894. Of his 77 children (by four queens and many concubines, as was customary), only two-thirds lived to maturity. Though he took great satisfaction in his accomplishments, he did not enjoy being king. Especially in the 1880s, he was fond of traveling incognito and would wander the slums and streets of Bangkok at night clad as a peasant. He once stopped a royal procession to join, unannounced, a peasant wedding; and his numerous travel diaries are filled with recorded conversations with peasant farmers who told him local folklore or complained about local conditions. He was a man of broad interests, and his zeal for change did not diminish his appreciation of his country's traditions.
Chulalongkorn was a prolific writer in many fields. Numerous volumes of his correspondence, as well as 25 volumes of his diary, have been published. His Far from Home, the collection of letters written to his daughter when he toured Europe in 1908, is still widely read. His historical study The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months (written 1888) has never been superseded. His best historical works are his commentary on the memoirs of Princess Narinthewi and his lengthy "Speech Introducing Governmental Reform" in 1888. He wrote much verse and drama, his best-known drama probably being Ngo Pa (1905). After the longest reign in Thai history, he died on Oct. 23, 1910.
There is no biography of Chulalongkorn. Prince Chula Chakrabongse, Lords of Life (1960), has a long hagiographic chapter on Chulalongkorn, and a good account by a contemporary of Chulalongkorn is in J. G. D. Campbell, Siam in the Twentieth Century (1902). The first scholarly treatment of Chulalongkorn's reign is David K. Wyatt, The Politics of Reform in Thailand: Education in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn (1969). Recommended for general historical background are D. G. E. Hall, A History of South-East Asia (1955; 3d ed. 1968), and David J. Steinberg, In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History (1971).